Interview // Charles Ross, The One Man Star Wars Trilogy
A one-man show based around a unique re-telling of one of film’s most epic sagas might not sound like the brightest idea for a money-making venture, but for Canadian Charles Ross it’s probably the smartest business decision he’ll ever make.
For more than 12 years, Ross has been taking his One Man Star Wars Trilogy show to stages around the world – as well as the lucrative science fiction geek convention circuit – and doing something that relatively few actors are afforded the opportunity to do: make a living doing what he loves.
Speaking to Something for the Weekend ahead of his week-long run in the Gaiety Theatre next month, Ross explains that the continued success of the show has surprised him as much as anybody else: “Originally I didn’t think the show would last longer than three months!”
He continues: “It didn’t start as a big idea. I was just trying to combat the continual state of unemployment when you’re working in theatre. As an actor you’re just continually auditioning so I wanted to get some autonomy over my career.
“I tried writing my own stuff and this was just one of those ‘kicks of the can’ that worked out for me. It started out as a bit of a comedy sketch and it went really well as a 25-minute sketch of the first film. It went so well that it seemed like maybe it could be expanded, and that’s what I did – I expanded it to the one-hour thing that you see now.”
Condensing almost seven hours of classic cinema into a one-hour solo performance is a daunting task. As well as voicing all the characters and narrating the story – it’s only a monologue in the sense there’s nobody else talking – Ross adds his own jokes and observations along the way.
He explains: “It’s basically a long-form homage where I kind of flip around wearing a boiler suit looking like some sort of mad mechanic. It’s absurd. It’s meant to be absurd. You really have to see it live – it’s a massive sweat fest.”
Anybody hoping to see pantomime-style light sabre action is in for a crushing disappointment – Ross is adamant that using props would detract from the essential lo-fi character of the show, a key feature it shares with the original films.
“Once you start going down the path of using props, you’ll always continue – it’ll be this big prop show. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for me it would take away from the extremely lo-fi quality. That’s something that the ‘70s films had that the new films lack – that kind of junkyard look.
“They call it the ‘used future,’ where you’re walking around the junk piles of some place in space, cobbling together spaceships out of spare parts. In that way, this is the extremely low-rent version of Star Wars – no special effects.
“I thought it would be a bit more interesting if it was posing the question, what can one person do? I can’t shoot lasers out of my fingers and some of my voices aren’t exactly spot-on with the movie, but it’s mind over matter – me not really minding, and it doesn’t really matter what I can’t do. The question is what can I do, and can I retell the story of the films in one hour.”
Fittingly, Ross’s personal experience growing up with Star Wars is every bit as unique and unusual as his stage show.
“For a few years we lived on a farm, a really remote farm, when I was a kid. We didn’t have any television reception and we didn’t have any radio reception. We had records and we had videos, and the three videos we had were the first Star Wars, Blue Lagoon with Brooke Shields and an eight-part mini-series called Shogun. That’s why I watched Star Wars so many times. “
Wisely deciding that he might find it difficult to pull off Brooke Shields, Ross plumped for the back-up option and stepped into the role of the Jedi, as well as an assorted cast of robots and space villains. It’s just as well, too, because in Star Wars he discovered a story that is about as universal as they come, and particularly poignant given his own detached upbringing.
He says: “It struck me even as a kid that the story of Luke [Skywalker] is sort of like the story of Frodo Baggins,” referring to the hero of the Lord of the Rings saga, upon which he based his second stage show.
“A very disenfranchised person who lives on a farm and doesn’t know how to get out of his life suddenly has adventure come knocking on his front door, and life changes to the point where he loses his ability to go home, but is actually able to effect a great blow against the oppressive powers in the world.”
For Ross, Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings represent a form of escapism that ultimately allows us to believe in the power of the individual as a positive force in the world.
“I mean, who wouldn’t want adventure to come knocking at their door rather than continue on in our drudge of life? It allows us to dream in a passive way that seems to promise that we can discover some hidden lineage inside of ourselves and effect the greatest social change by essentially doing nothing but be ourselves.”
Not surprisingly, Ross’s show has spawned the odd copycat.
“Sometimes you get people who are trying to do the same thing I do, which is unfortunate for them as I have the license with Lucasfilm, and the license with the Lords of the Rings folks. I’m not sure why they want to do the exact same thing – it’s not as though my idea was super-original, I’m not really creating anything that’s not already there.”
More encouragingly, his success has inspired others to offer similar takes on classic stories.
“I’ve inspired people to do one-man or one-woman shows based on Wizard of Oz and things like that, and I think that’s great. I wouldn’t even call it a genre, it’s just a weird style of style of storytelling. It’s almost like being a bard, only without the skills of the original bards, telling a story that we already know in a way that’s unique to us.”
The One Man Star Wars Trilogy opens at the Gaiety Theatre on Monday, April 1.